The Great Divide

The Great Divide

By Carrie Knific

There is hardly a day when middler political science major Carollynn Ward is not seen bright and early on the floor of the Marino Recreation Center.

“A lot of my health interest comes from my family,” Ward said. “My grandfather died morbidly obese – one day his heart just stopped. Most of my family is significantly overweight, so I’m conscious of the fact that it could happen.”

According to the American Obesity Association, 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million are obese, nine million are severely obese and the numbers continue to rise.

In the past 20 years, America’s obese population has increased 16.1 percent. The number of college students with severe obesity has gone up 4.7 percent.

Health experts believe student obesity has increased due to students becoming apathetic, shrugging off health-related responsibilities and accepting the consequences. However, there are students who know the threat of obesity and take steps to lead a healthy lifestyle.

This is the great divide.

There are those who believe the body is like a car, requiring upkeep, conditioning and attention to detail to keep the machine running smoothly – one small chink in the gears and the engine won’t run right. Then there are those who believe the body is a vessel for the essence of one’s being – a transporting mechanism that bears the brunt of fun and follies.

These two extremes are growing farther apart.

The statistics report: Type-2 diabetes and other weight-related diseases like asthma are sweeping American youth. A study from the National Center for Health Statistics found that from 1971 to 2000, the percentage of obese adolescents (ages 12-19) more than doubled for both males and females. Obesity in males increased 9.4 percent and in females it increased 9.3 percent, with the biggest changes occurring in the past two decades.

Hitting home

The findings of these studies are seen throughout the country and on college campuses.

Although the rises are widely documented, students like Daryl Velez, a freshman journalism major, are focused on the sudden move into young adulthood, not long-term health.

“I’d like to eat healthier, but it’s hard to accommodate as a college student,” he said. “The student center is like a small food court. Picking and choosing isn’t easy when you’re on a strict budget.”

Velez described himself as a stereotypical college student – living on slim wages, using time not spent on studies at a part-time job, and living off of fast food, coffee and Ramen noodles.

Amid the transition into adulthood, students normally want to take better care of their bodies, but fall slothfully out of high-intensity routines. Whether following an unrealistic, short-lived trend or losing resolve amid a hectic schedule, many give in to old habits.

“There are those who say, ‘Wow, there’s a really nice gym over there, I should go to it’ and there are those who say, ‘Oh, I feel swamped with work, I could never make the time for it,” said sophomore sign language major Brenda Guillermo.

Only 38 percent of college students participate regularly in vigorous activity, while 26 percent report regular moderate activity, according to the National College Health Risk Behavior Survey. Almost half of all college students say they are less active after high school.

College athletes participating in team sports rated enjoyment and ability as their primary motivators, while students who engaged in personal fitness, like aerobics or weight training, said their main motivation revolves around body-related motives (particularly image), according to the Journal of Sports Behavior in 2002.

A similar study conducted in 2005 by the Journal of American College Health found that men and women exercise for different reasons. Men said their physical activities were more motivated by challenge, competition, social recognition, strength and endurance, whereas women were mostly driven by weight management.

Guillermo works out at the Marino Center five times a week while training for Capoeira martial arts.

“Martial arts requires a very fit body,” he said. “There are a lot of kicks and jumps – in order to keep up with that, I need to keep my body in good shape.”

Students like Velez know they could be doing more to take better care of themselves. Some have their motivations out of proportion, or just don’t know how to make healthy nutritional decisions. For example, some students would be surprised to know that too much weight-lifting can have the opposite effect and deteriorate muscle instead of building it, or that restricting carbohydrates isn’t necessary for weight loss. But is it really that difficult to pinpoint mistakes? Or is it just another excuse?

A day-to-day decision

“Some of it is personality, but some students just don’t care,” said Northeastern alumna Catherine O’Hara. “But when you have a heart attack at 30 years old, you’re going to wonder why you didn’t work out when you were younger.”

O’Hara, 26, spends many weekday mornings at Marino.

Health starts as a day-to-day decision making process before it becomes second nature. While some students know it would be better to swap their Belgian waffle dinner for a turkey sandwich and salad, other students regard nutrition as an intricate jungle of details they could never maneuver through.

Some believe they may be making the right decisions when they’re actually giving in to myths fattened up by diet fads of years passed. For example, some equate fat with bad nutrition thanks to, the non-fat diet fad of the early ’90s, said Dr. Judith Mabel, a nutritional healer in Brookline.

“It’s especially important for students to feed the brain good fats,” she said. “I counsel college-aged students and when I tell them to eat fats they nearly faint.”

However, eating fatty foods is taboo to diet-obsessive students, especially young women who fear excess pounds.

These good fats, deemed essential fats by health experts, come in two types: omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in plants, nuts, seeds and cold-water fish; and omega-6 fatty acids, which come from grains like corn, and in cornflower oil and olive oil.

Different from saturated fats, which can raise cholesterol and blood pressure by stiffening cell membranes, essential unsaturated fats do the opposite. They make cell membranes more flexible and aid the production of certain hormones essential for blood clotting, blood pressure control and brain and eye function.

Finding the healthy stuff

Students who roam the buffet-style lines at dinnertime do have healthy options – they just have to know where to find them. For example, salmon and tuna contain high levels of essential fats, as do almonds and whole grains.

“They don’t call fish ‘brain food’ for nothing,” Mabel said.

Healthful foods are not limited to hippie cafes and students do not have to set out on a pricey quest to find them. Simple foods like broccoli, which includes antioxidants, vitamins and chromium, are a rich source of nutrition, help burn fat and keep insulin levels in check, and can be found at Northeastern’s dining hall salad bar.

Although cholesterol or blood pressure may not be at the forefront of some college students’ minds, awareness of the long-term consequences can stave off future health problems. But what prevents students from making smart decisions?

Obstacles to good health

Two factors Velez identified as barriers that prevent students from making healthy choices are convenience and peer pressure.

“In the dining halls it’s hard because my friends and I will judge what to eat by the volume of students in the building at the time,” Velez said. “You may want to get something healthy but if the line for burgers is down, chances are that you’ll get a cheeseburger with all the toppings because they’re there, with french fries because that’s what’s served right next to it.”

Young Americans on a quest for good health are often distracted by ideals of the ‘perfect body’ they see in the media.

“Young students need to stop buying fashion magazines that show these unnatural creatures who drive themselves crazy,” Mabel said. “If they don’t stop focusing on artificial beauty like that they become less healthy.”

The consequences of poor decisions probably won’t show up in their youth, but a recent Australian study reported one in two women over age 60 are likely to fracture a bone due to osteoporosis. Early bone development, bolstered by a good diet and physical activity, is perhaps the greatest indicator of bone mass later in life.

The same study shows that 75 to 85 percent of the skeleton accumulates during teen years for both males and females. The National Nutrition Survey now recommends at least 688 milligrams (mg) of dairy per day for teenaged girls and 1084 mg per day for teenaged boys, which can come from up to four servings of dairy per day.

However, it is currently thought the effects of bone density through enhanced diet with supplements are only short-lived – the benefits are lower if you only take a calcium pill every now and then. Therefore, health experts suggest that to get the most out of your supplements, be consistent.

Staying on track

Once a student settles into healthier habits, how does he or she stay that way?

The students on the active side of the great divide are proud of their habits, good body image and give props to exercise for their responsible routines. Carollynn Ward said college life improved her habits rather than wreaking havoc on her body.

“I’ve always been really routine – oriented about going to the gym but I’ve gotten more habitual as I’ve gotten to college,” she said. “I think my goals are more clarified and my time is more valuable so I have to be more diligent.”

Any gym regular or nutrition enthusiast frequently hears the same phrase echoing from less-adamant peers, Ward said. With a wishful sigh or a chuckle, students will say: “Oh, I could never do that.”

“I’m a very driven person, and that’s a characteristic of students who are consistent,” Ward said. “It’s easier for some students to validate their actions and rationalize that they’re too busy to work out, but it’s not always true.”

Are the two ends of the great divide so permanently separate?

Although it could be a tough jump, students on the apathetic end are hesitant to swing over to the other side while the health nuts can sometimes feel a little isolated.

“I certainly think there’s a disconnect with students I consort with – they’re not even aware that I get up and go to the gym [at 7:30 a.m.],” Ward said.

The most difficult part of the great divide is that “we don’t see where the other side is coming from,” Ward said.

Guillermo said she agrees students’ minds can be completely closed off to the other perspective.

“I think it’s definitely a psychological thing,” she said. “You’ve got to want it. You’ve seen those people who are fat and unhealthy their whole lives and somebody says that one thing and they decide to change their lives for the better.”

Perhaps the two sides of the divide aren’t so permanently separated. With a positive attitude and a healthy perspective on diet and exercise, Guillermo said she believes almost anyone can snap into shape or improve their general health.

“Anyone can do it if they’re motivated enough,” she said.

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